Alzheimer's: Making mealtimes easier

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Alzheimer's: Making mealtimes easier

Alzheimer's disease can impact a person's quality of life. As Alzheimer's progresses, eating problems become common — which can make the situation worse. Poor nutrition can lead to physical weakness, an increased risk of falls, a weak immune system, and increased confusion and stress. If you're caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's, understand what causes eating problems and take steps to ensure good nutrition.

Consider underlying conditions

If your loved one is having trouble eating, consider whether any underlying conditions may be contributing to the problem. For example:

  • Ill-fitting dentures may make eating painful. If your loved one wears dentures, make sure they fit properly. Regularly check your loved one's mouth for sores or other oral or dental issues.
  • Medications may affect appetite. Many medications decrease appetite, including some drugs used to treat Alzheimer's. If you think medications are contributing to your loved one's eating problems, ask your loved one's doctor about substitutions.
  • Chronic conditions may affect appetite. Diabetes, heart disease, digestive problems and depression may dampen your loved one's interest in eating. Constipation can have the same effect. Treating these or other underlying conditions may improve your loved one's appetite.

Acknowledge fading skills and senses

The senses of taste and smell tend to diminish with age. Even healthy older adults often eat less because food doesn't smell or taste as good as it once did. Alzheimer's disease seems to inhibit these senses even further.

In the early stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one may simply forget to eat or lose the skills needed to prepare proper meals. You might call your loved one to remind him or her to eat, or prepare food in advance and then talk your loved one through the steps of unwrapping, reheating and serving.

As Alzheimer's progresses, your loved one may forget table manners and eat from others' plates or out of serving bowls. He or she may lose impulse control and judgment and, in turn, eat anything in sight — including items not intended as food. During the later stages of the disease, difficulty swallowing is common.

Expect agitation and distraction

Agitation, one of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer's, may make it difficult for your loved one to sit still long enough to eat a meal. Distractions at mealtime may make this even worse. To reduce distractions, turn off the television, radio and telephone ringer. You might also clear the table of any unnecessary items and use plates and bowls without patterns.

Try colorful plates and large-handled utensils

Your loved one might eat more when his or her food is served on a brightly colored plate. Try bright red or bright blue, rather than pastels. The visual contrast may make it easier for your loved one to distinguish between the plate and the food.

To keep plates from slipping, use place mats that have traction on both sides — or make your own from a roll of the rubbery mesh typically used to line shelves. Sometimes bowls are easier to use than are plates. Likewise, spoons may be easier to handle than forks. The larger the spoon's handle, the better. Try bendable straws or lidded cups for liquids.

Offer foods one at a time

If your loved one is overwhelmed by an entire plateful of food, place just one type of food at a time on the plate. You could also offer several small meals throughout the day, rather than three larger ones. Cut food into bite-sized portions. Finger foods are even easier — but avoid nuts, popcorn and raw carrots, which can be hard to chew and swallow.

Sneak in extra nutrition

If you're having a hard time getting your loved one to eat enough, you might take advantage of the fact that many people who have Alzheimer's disease are most alert and hungry in the morning. You could serve a filling breakfast, or several light breakfasts in a row. You might also offer high-calorie snacks — such as protein milkshakes. Consult the doctor if your loved one loses weight suddenly.

Ensuring good nutrition in Alzheimer's can be a challenge, but it's worthwhile. Good nutrition can help your loved one better cope — both physically and emotionally — with this difficult disease.

Last Updated: 2009-11-24
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